Here’s what’s blooming in town this week to make your walks more enjoyable
In a month full of holidays, December is apt to be busy indoors and out. Decorations are up everywhere you look. Friday’s tree-lighting, and the figures that appeared only for that day on the town hall and library lawns, provided a festive spectacle enjoyed by a good-sized crowd. Monday, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day! The plant we call poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist who was named minister to Mexico by President John Quincy Adams in 1825, because he brought the plant back from Mexico to his estate in South Carolina. Poinsett died on December 12, 1851, so this date was chosen to commemorate the plant when it became a very popular flower about two centuries later. The Ecke family of Encinitas, California, made poinsettias popular as a Christmas decoration in the 1960s. Amazingly, since they are not usually sold outside of the Christmas season, they have now become the best-selling potted plant in the United States.
For a period of time, it was believed that poinsettias were deadly poisonous to people and pets, but after further study scientists are agreed that it is not deadly. Sometimes it can create nausea and diarrhea, but the human and animal patients recover with no lasting ill effects.
What most people consider the flower is actually a whorl of colorful bracts, or specialized leaves, which surround the cluster of small yellowish or orangish flowers. The bracts can retain their color for months, and it is possible to get them to rebloom under the right circumstances. When I was growing up, my best friend’s mother impressed me by getting several plants to bloom another year by keeping them in a dark room at night to stimulate the color production. They normally bloom in rural areas where there is no intense artificial light, so the nights are longer than the daylight hours. After about two months of this, some leaves near the tips should start turning red. Sometimes home-grown poinsettias do not have as good a flower shape as commercial ones, but it is quite an accomplishment to get the plants to rebloom because it needs consistent treatment at the appropriate time to get flowers and colorful bracts by the Christmas season.
While poinsettia is a warm climate plant that would not survive cold weather outdoors in Saugus, many of the trees and shrubs that serve as popular holiday decorations thrive in our climate. Evergreens with needle foliage, known as conifers because they produce seeds inside cones, are especially popular decorations. Broadleaf evergreens, which keep their leaves all winter but are not closely related to conifers, can also be very popular decorations at this time of year. Holly (Ilex spp.) and English ivy (Hedera helix) are the subjects of a popular Christmas carol. While many holly species are known for their evergreen foliage, a local deciduous holly is also a very popular decoration. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) has vivid red berries that remain through much of the winter. It is a locally native shrub that likes growing in somewhat damp locations. It is very decorative all fall, as the berries turn red in September or October, but after November when the leaves fall the fruit is especially eye-catching. Cut branches are sold by most nurseries and many florists and grocery store floral departments at this time of year for use indoors and out.
Editor’s Note: Laura Eisener is a landscape design consultant who helps homeowners with landscape design, plant selection and placement of trees and shrubs, as well as perennials. She is a member of the Saugus Garden Club and offered to write a series of articles about “what’s blooming in town” shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was inspired after seeing so many people taking up walking.